St. Charles East's Amanda Hilton takes a shot on goal as Huntley's Rachel Zobott tries to block her kick. | Jon Langham/For Sun-Times Media
They struggled to score at the start of the year, a fact reflected in the five ties. They finished third in their division of the Upstate Eight.
That is the ancient past.
St. Charles East dominated Huntley with its precision passing game and propulsive forward attack Tuesday as junior midfielder Kelli Santo Paolo facilitated both goals in the Saints’ decisive 2-0 victory in the Class 3A Lake Park Supersectional in Roselle.
St. Charles East (18-4-5) won its seventh straight game and punched its ticket to Friday’s state semifinals against Lincoln-Way North at North Central College in Naperville.
“Their center midfielders just controlled the game,” Huntley coach Kris Grabner said. “We made some changes in the final 15 minutes of the first half because we had to change it up, but it didn’t really matter. You have to give them credit.”
The Saints dominated possession time throughout the first half, putting the Red Raiders (19-7) on their heels. The game was locked in a scoreless draw at the break, in large part because Huntley’s superb backline and stellar goalkeeper Jessica Galason shut down the Saints in the offensive third.
The pressure mounted but East never let up. In the 52nd minute, Santo Paolo played a cross from the right flank into the middle that resulted in back-to-back point blank shots that resulted in superb stops by Galason.
She was out of position on the second deflection, and the ball bounced out to waiting and willing senior midfielder Rion Gaffney. She put the rebound away for the 1-0 lead.
“It’s all about teamwork and playing for each other,” Gaffney said. “I was just right there, the ball came to me and I put it away in the upper-left corner.”
Athletic Saints goalkeeper Kendra Sheehan stopped one of the Red Raiders’ top scoring chances on a free kick just outside the box less than a minute later. Four times she aggressively came out to deny Huntley the deep ball.
“The team looks to me to go out and make those plays,” Sheehan said. “I wasn’t going to be passive there. Our defense is the reason we’re here. They’re stepping up, they’re killing it out there and not letting any balls through.”
St. Charles East controlled the ball in the middle in allowing Santo Paolo to perform her magic, playing the balls wide that resulted in scoring chances. She put the game away by lofting another beautiful cross that junior forward Darcy Cunningham smashed in with a header in the 67th minute.
“It’s amazing, and not just me but the whole team is playing so hard and going forward,” Santo Paolo said. “Everybody is pushing up the field, everybody is controlling the ball.
“We struggled at the start of the year scoring, but we’ve gotten a lot better, and we don’t get discouraged or frustrated, like in the first half, we just know it’s going to work out.”
According to St. Charles East coach Paul Jennison, the Saints are confident, energized and playing at another level.
“It’s about finding rhythm at the right time, but to be honest I think we’ve played good soccer the whole year,” Jennison said. “It’s just the games recently have been magnified because of the state tournament.”
Since defeating rival and sectional top-seed St. Charles North a week ago, the Saints are strutting, seeing where the next step leads.
“I can’t even process this right now,” Sheehan said. “But we deserve to be here.”